It was on New Year's Day, standing on a snowy mountain top overlooking Almaty, that I understood something about what makes Kazakhstan tick. Two teenage girls were eating a horsemeat picnic under a tree whose branches bore hundreds of coloured ribbons, every one a wish, they told me, according to shamanistic lore. Nearby, a stately old couple sat admiring the view: Mira and Vladimir - a retired postal clerk whose English was infinitely better than my creaky Russian - had just come out of Orthodox mass. As we spoke, the sound of a muezzin wafted up from the mists below. Then I met a shopkeeper and his family, camped in the snow, who pressed a plastic cup of cognac into my hand and invited me to toast the future with them. Like everyone else I met in Kazakhstan, they were delighted that a Brit should choose to spend Christmas there, but they had one big question: why was democratic Britain following George Bush on Iraq? The best answer I could come up with was: "You aren't the only ones ruled by a dictator."
Kazakhstan may be classed as Muslim, but one couldn't wish for a better example of pluralist tolerance than what I found on that mountain. The country is vast - as big as western Europe, linking the Caspian Sea and China - but so is our ignorance of it. Together with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, it represents a black hole in our geopolitical consciousness. By and large, the only westerners who can tell the "stans" apart are oilmen and the US military: Uzbekistan is now America's new best friend (despite its appalling human rights record) and US money is pouring into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as a quid pro quo for logistical support in the war on terror.
Yet, war or no war, what happens in these states will have a serious bearing on all our futures. Some contain imminent menace - the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has already spilled far beyond that country's borders - but Kazakhstan, the richest of the five, is still untainted by militant anti-westernism. How long this remains true will depend entirely on how the west behaves. If we foul up as we did in the Gulf - relating not to the people but merely to their rulers - we risk generating nothing but popular hate. But if we manage to nudge Kazakhstan towards democratic openness, we may induce the other stans to move that way as well: all are currently run by ex-communist dictators, and all are susceptible to persuasion. With China unpredictable and Russia - Kazakhstan's closest ally - inherently unstable, the stakes are high in central Asia. Kazakhstan is at the crossroads, and therefore so are we.
Kazakhstan's government bureaucracy is still sclerotically Soviet, but there's no doubting the desire of its young intelligentsia to escape from the tyranny of the past. Indeed, their country's woes predate its existence in its present form, and go back to a time when the Kazakhs were nomads without a state of any kind. Russian "protection" in the 18th century became outright colonialism in the 19th, when the Kazakhs were officially stripped of their privileged status as descendants of Genghis Khan.
In 1914 their cattle and cotton were requisitioned for the Russian war effort; when they resisted, whole villages were massacred. The Bolsheviks proved just as repressive, and were no less hated: they viciously put down a short-lived government that might, had it prospered, have led to a remarkably westernised central Asian state. Instead, out of the vast land mass known as Turkes-tan - subdivided by clan loyalties rather than geographical frontiers - Stalin invented five new nations. Thus did the unnatural birth of Kazakhstan take place.
Corralled in their collective farms, these ex-nomads spent the next 70 years in politically frozen inanition, but the Soviets finally got their come-uppance. By using the Kazakh steppes as their testing ground for weapons of mass destruction - everything from the plague and anthrax to nuclear bombs - they provoked the first popular protest movement the USSR had ever seen; in 1989, demonstrators at Semipalatinsk forced an end to all tests in Kazakhstan. But as National Geographic magazine chillingly reported in November, that Soviet legacy is now a global threat - despite American clean-up efforts - with vials of plague lurking in lightly guarded laboratories. A proposal last autumn that Kazakhstan should earn money by processing the EU's nuclear waste met furious local protests. On the other hand, the Anti-Plague Research Institute in Almaty has now embarked on a joint project with the University of Liverpool and the Wellcome Trust, in which research into a bacillus that lives in the hides of marmots on the steppes will be pursued for peaceful purposes. Out of great evil, good may yet come.
Lured by oil profits, western companies are now finding other, equally exemplary ways to ingratiate themselves with Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Palm-greasing has largely given way to the funding of schools and hospitals; the latest prestige project is a Kazakh-British university whose funding comes from oil companies plus Mitsubishi.
Nazarbayev is omnipotent, both as dynast - his progeny control broadcasting plus much of the country's oil and gas - and as dictator. When he was re-elected in 1999 with an overwhelming majority, he decreed that no further elections would be needed until 2006. Meanwhile he would get on with his pet project of creating a brand new capital out of what had been, until 1996, a Russian garrison town in the middle of the windswept plains. He has been astonishingly successful: over the past year, Astana has grown out of all recognition, and with it Kazakhstan's centre of gravity has shifted Russia-wards, away from Asia. Moreover, in comparison with the other stans, Nazarbayev's is an enlightened regime. There is sporadic press censorship, and the new opposition party is not very confrontational (piquantly, its name translates as "Shining Path"), but Nazarbayev has launched a drive to transform the civil service along western lines, with promotion by merit rather than clan membership. That really does represent a revolution.
James Kennedy, the British Council's director for both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, has been asked to help advise on this revolution, as well as judicial and penal reform: in contrast to the local US Information Service, which is merely the American embassy's PR mouthpiece, our council has won local trust and is exerting benign influence. While the Americans nervously bar their doors to all comers, hundreds of Kazakh students tramp through the British Council library every day, some to borrow books or watch videos, others to chase graduate scholarships, but many to spend what savings they have on short language courses in Britain.
Despite vast wealth in the hands of the few, poverty in Kazakhstan is widespread and acute. The demolition of the collectives ripped apart rural lives; for the big underclass in booming Almaty, as the ethnographer Joma Nazpary shows in Post-Soviet Chaos (Pluto Press), the story is no less grim. Workers have seen their ex-communist managers steal their factories and jobs from under their noses; many survive only through complex systems of bartered services, including, among women, the service of prostitution. An Aids epidemic is looming; 20 per cent of the drugs trafficked through Kazakhstan are consumed within its borders. Unicef originally expected to spend a couple of years helping the post-Soviet state establish itself, then leave it to tick on satisfactorily: it now accepts that it will be needed indefinitely. While the US Peace Corps is rapidly increasing its numbers of volunteers deployed in Kazakhstan, the local VSO office is threatened with closure in 2006; given the country's social problems and strategic importance, that would be perverse in the extreme.
My own purpose in visiting Almaty was to record traditional music. Until the Soviet era, Kazakh society was in large part pre-literate, and its culture was therefore oral: nomadic bards purveyed epics and ballads, and functioned as newspapers. Their weapons were the two-stringed dombra lute plus a variety of harps and flutes; village shamans cast their spells with the aid of a two-stringed horsehair fiddle called the kobuz, whose mournful timbre is closest to that of the cello.
We have Stalin to thank that these arts are still preserved intact. Like Enver Hoxha in Albania, he and his henchmen realised that folk songs could easily be put to communist use; all you had to do was write new words. So whereas the original contest songs dealt with jousts between warrior heroes, the Soviet ones formalised jousts about productivity between factories and farms. The music remained its old magical self.
The lyrics I recorded dealt first and foremost with horses (major characters in most epics) and with every aspect of love, family life and death - joke songs; racing songs; farewell songs to friends or native villages; brides' laments as they pass into matrimonial servitude; wordless songs of mourning, delivered on the kobuz. The dombra professor at Almaty's conservatoire took me on a guided tour of regional styles from all over the country, extracting an extraordinary variety of sounds from his two nylon strings.
When the jew's harpist had finished his recording, he suggested we meet again at midnight in the local jazz cafe. And there he was at the microphone, using his tiny instrument to dominate guitars and drum'n'bass. That told me something else about Kazakh pluralism. This is indeed a country of which we could all take note.
A CD of Michael Church's Kazakh recordings will be released on the Topic label later this year